With a new mandate that students have daily gym class and a policy calling for more arts instruction, school librarians are becoming increasingly rare, speakers charged at hearings on the district’s budget. At the Kennedy-King College hearing, one of three held late Wednesday, speakers also criticized cuts to Simeon High’s career education programs, cuts to welcoming schools that took in students displaced by closings, the additional money being funneled to charters and a plan to save $6 million by reorganizing bus aides for disabled students.

Rhonda McLeod worries that aides will be shuffled around and children won’t get to know them. “They need to feel safe,” said McLeod, who noted that there is already a long delay in getting bus routes set up and that she has had children get lost.

In previous years CPS officials sat stone-faced at hearings, but this year, they tried to answer questions when they could. In regard to charters, Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro told the audience that money follows students and CPS is funding charters because students are choosing to go to them.

Asean Johnson, the student who was featured in CNN’s “Chicagoland” speaking out against the closure of his South Side school, asked the panel whether the continued opening of charter schools puts CPS on the right side of history or on the wrong side.

“That is a question,” he said.

“We will have to reflect on that,” Ostro answered.

A number of speakers were upset that district officials blamed a big pension payment for budget problems and one CTU member pointed out previous long pension holidays, even in good years when the district could have afforded to make their entire contribution.

“Saying you don’t have money is like a gambler saying that they went to Horseshoe [casino] and then telling the landlord they have no money to pay the rent,” she said. 

More librarians lost

CPS schools are getting a $250 per pupil increase, but must pay teachers raises and are pressed to make difficult decisions—including, the speakers pointed out, to librarian positions.

Megan Cusick, who leads the CTU’s librarian task force, said last year, 140 schools lost their librarians and another 60 schools laid off their librarians this year. That means that more than half of CPS schools do not have librarians. Yet CPS promised that schools would be better resourced after the closing of 50 schools last year, she said.

Cusick was followed by Marie Szyman, president of the Chicago Teacher-Librarians, who took issue with a claim that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made at the last board meeting that there was a shortage of available librarians. She said she knows of 200 of them ready to go work today.  

“With the Common Core emphasis on literacy, I am mystified that libraries are closing,” she said. “How can our students become “college ready” without adequate instruction in research and exposure to literature which librarians provide?”

Figuring out exactly how many librarians are budgeted for next year is difficult. The budget only lists 21 librarians, though there are likely more. Under student-based budgeting, in which schools are given money for each student, not for specific positions, there is no money provided specifically for a librarian. Principals, along with LSCs, must decide if they want a librarian and weigh the decision against other positions they might need or want—and now the district has new policies calling for daily gym class and 120 hours of arts instruction per week.

Under the old system, schools were given one physical education teacher or librarian for every 600 students. Schools with fewer students got money for half-time positions.

“I stand before you today to ask you to prevent principals from having to make the dreaded decision ‘Do I need to close the library to hire another PE teacher?’” Syzman said.

Simeon’s career education loses out

Another principal decision that came under fire was the decision to close the electrician program at Simeon Vocational High School. Latisa Kindred said she was laid off after the principal and the network office decided the school could no longer afford the program, and that an automotive teacher was laid off as well.

Simeon’s enrollment is projected to drop by about 60 students and its budget is down by about $200,000.

Kindred told the budget panel that she had been able to get students certified as well as into a union. “Working with their hands gives students hope,” she said. “I want to know how [career education] decisions are made? What guidelines are principals given when they make these autonomous decisions?”

Asean Johnson’s mother Shoneice Reynolds said she was at a meeting at Simeon about these cuts on Tuesday night and many students came out to speak about the importance of the programs. “It was a beautiful meeting and we invited CPS and the fact that you did not come shows you do not care about our children,” she said.

Also, an older gentleman spoke about being able to make a living based on his participation with the electrician program at Simeon.

International Baccalaureate threat?

The schools that were designated to receive students from closed schools were also dealt big budget blows this year as they lost the extra transition funds and got less than the expected number of students.

Ald. Pat Dowell said two welcoming schools—Mollison and Wells Prep–are supposed to become International Baccalaureate schools, but will struggle to meet the requirements because of the cuts. Other schools have higher than average rates of homeless and special education students, she said.

“Teachers, parents and myself are worried that the loss of these resources will be another disruption for these students,” she said.

Given these cuts, parents and teachers struggled to understand why CPS keeps opening charter schools. Concept Charter School came under particular fire. Concept, which has more than a dozen campuses throughout the Midwest including three in Chicago and two more planned, was recently raided by the federal government’s Securities and Exchange Commission and is under investigation by the state board in Ohio.

One of the planned new campuses is supposed to be located in Chatham in a megachurch development, but the church’s spokeswoman has reportedly said they are not going forward until Concept works out its problems. Concept officials said 250 students have registered for the school and they are now looking for a new location.

CPS Chief Innovation Officer Jack Easley, who was part of the panel at the South Side hearing, said the district is monitoring the situation closely and will soon reveal how the situation will be handled.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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